Making History - The Movement for Black Lives Convening

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Group photo from the Movement for Black Lives Convening

"This has never been done in this way ever before." With these words, trans activist and organizer Elle Hearns opened the first Movement for Black Lives Convening. This historic convening took place from July 24 to July 26 in Cleveland, Ohio. This city was chosen because in November 2014 an unarmed 12 year old Black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot to death by Cleveland Police, sparking protests across the country. The convening was attended by nearly 1500 people from across the US as well as international allies from the UK and Africa. Elle’s words referred to a history of Black folks coming together to build community, hold space for one another, and forge self determination. While our people are no strangers to such gatherings, what made the event historic was the attention paid to voices so often drowned out: the voices of trans people, women, queer people, and youth.

The gathering was driven by the following principles: All Black Lives Matter; Thriving Instead of Surviving; Experimentation; Evaluation; Principled Struggle; Love/Self-Love; 360-Degree Vision; Self-Care; the Most Directly Impacted People in Leadership; and Training and Leadership Development. Each of these principles were pieces of a revolutionary whole and guided the entire convening. More than just a political space, this was a space for Black folks to come together, build community, and see what self-determination could look like. To understand the revolutionary nature of this event, we must understand its significance in the historical context of Black folks being unable to gather and the special role that queer folks, trans folks, and women play in the movement today.

While Black folks were enslaved in the US, we were not allowed to congregate anywhere outside of church, for fear we would plan a slave rebellion. During the great Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's, Black churches that were used as meeting places for the movement were often attacked. As evidenced by the killing of nine unarmed Black church members by a white supremacist earlier this year at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this kind of terrorism still exists today. Black folks’ reality in the US makes being in communion with one another and speaking about our issues a revolutionary and defiant act. At the convening, we purposefully uplifted the voices of the most marginalized in our community to build our own narrative of self determination outside the laws of sexism, transphobia, or homophobia. The most visceral example of these principles coming into practice happened the first night outside the conference space when attendees were faced with transphobia in a very real and cutting way: A trans man was pulled out of the men's room of a nightclub that the convening organizers had bought out for the evening for a meet-and-greet. Security at the club tried to forcibly remove him from the venue, insisting that he was "using the wrong restroom." When folks saw this, they intervened by filming the security guards and blocking them from removing our trans brother. Once he was safe and removed from security, everyone cleared the club and had an impromptu rally outside the venue in protest of how this man was treated. This show of solidarity for all Black people regardless of who they are, captured the spirit of the convening.

During the covening, it was especially important to uplift the voices of women; not only are they often the ones doing the work, but as we expand the narrative around police violence, we must include the violence they suffer. When people talk about state violence in the Black community, it is nearly always exclusive to the physical violence young Black men experience at the hands of law enforcement. Yet the violence our community suffers is much deeper: from Black women denied prenatal care, to the forced sterilization of Black women in prison, to their rape and sexual assault inside and outside the home.

Similarly, it was seen as essential to uplift the voices of queer and trans people because of the violence we are forced to suffer in silence. Since the beginning of this year, more than a dozen trans Black women have been killed, and something is finally being done about it. We are used to hearing the names of young Black men like Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown; we are less accustomed to hearing the names and stories of Black trans women such as Ashton O'Hara, Amber Monroe, Elisha Walker, Lambia Beard, and Kandis Capri. While the work for Black queer and trans folks’ justice has been going on for years, it was not until the convening that it rose to the forefront of the movement's struggle.

The importance of celebrating these struggles and leaders was even greater, given the attempts to erase Black trans and queer leaders from history. Bayard Rustin and Marsha Johnson played pivotal roles in the queer liberation and Black liberation movements. Johnson was a trans woman in New York who started the Stonewall Riots that birthed the modern queer liberation movement; Rustin was a gay Black man who organized the Great March on Washington famous for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Yet, these two amazing queer Black people have been erased from history: an upcoming Hollywood film about Stonewall credits the start of the uprising to a cis-gendered[rev]Cisgender is a label for "individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity". Cisgender serves as a complement to transgender. For example, “cis-male” refers to a person who is biologically born a male and also identifies as male; “trans-male” would refer to a person who was not biologically born a male but identifies as male.[/ref] white male, completely whitewashing Marsha's role in making history. And while A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, and Whitney Young are remembered for their speeches, Rustin is hardly ever mentioned. To ensure this new generation of freedom fighters will not endure the same white/straight washing of generations past, we told our own stories to film crews and documentarians and listened to trans elders like Mother Major Griffin-Gracy talk about what it was really like to struggle in the past. While history cannot be re-written in one stroke, this was the beginning of the process.

Ultimately, it was not just the attention paid to marginalized voices that made the convening revolutionary, but also its attention to Black suffering and Black healing. During the opening ceremonies, the families of noted victims of state violence gave short eulogies for their loved ones, ending with the words "And this is why I fight." Afterwards, those of us in the audience who had lost family members to police violence were asked to stand and speak the names of our loved ones. Nearly a third of the room stood as we all took in the emotional reality of what we go through on a daily basis and held space to grieve with one another. This was followed by Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," which has the chorus line "We gone be alright," and which became our unofficial anthem of the convening. Holding this space allowed for Black folks who have to fight the injustices of state violence to breathe and lament the loss of loved ones.

For the first time in my life, I brought the fullness of me to a movement space without needing to defend why. I could be a gay, Black, nationalist, revolutionary - and feel safe, loved, included, respected, and cared for. That was the power of the Movement for Black Lives Convening; to make a space for the whole Black community to feel safe and included. I have struggled to understand why this means so much and why it is so very revolutionary. I have come to the conclusion that to build spaces like these is to challenge the very basis of imperial power, by first freeing colonized minds and then directing them to the true enemy. What was done in Cleveland was only the beginning of a stirring giant within a new generation of Blacktivists that have nothing to lose but our chains.

written by Ronald Collins (Solidarity Correspondent, ISC)